In early July 2014, the small Sardinian town of Cala Gonone hosted the schooner, and also a 5-day seminar for some of the Oceanomics researchers.
More than a year after the launch of this gigantic project aimed at analyzing the samples from the Tara Oceans expedition (2009-2013), the first results are extremely promising.
The adventures of the schooner exploring the planktonic world during the expeditions Tara Oceans (2009-2012) and Tara Oceans Polar Circle (2013) were highly publicized, but this sampling phase was only the tip of the iceberg. After collecting tens of thousands of samples and information of all kinds, the subsequent work in laboratories – analyzing, organizing, and interpreting the data – is enormous. To exploit this gold mine of potential knowledge, the Oceanomics project began in March 2013. A consortium of academic partners including the CNRS, CEA/Génoscope and Ecole Normale Supérieure, but also private partners like the Tara Foundation, will be working together until 2020 to obtain a maximum of information from the samples collected by the schooner.
Nearly a year and a half after its launch, this 7-million euro project is still in its initial and surely its most colossal phase – data analysis. Almost 30,000 samples of plankton were collected at different depths at about 200 sites in the world’s oceans. In addition, the physico-chemical parameters of water were recorded throughout Tara’s expeditions: salinity, temperature, percentage of oxygen, etc. “We had planned 2 to 3 years for this first phase – almost half the project’s duration,” explains Colomban de Vargas, coordinator of Oceanomics. “We need to extract the relevant data, put it in order, make statistics and compare them, to be able to finally draw conclusions.”
To conquer this mountain of data, 15 laboratories are working on the project’s different facets, each according to its speciality. Some laboratories are working on imaging (direct observation of organisms), others are sequencing and assembling genes (revealing those present and expressed in the samples). Certain researchers are linking this information to well calibrated physico-chemical parameters. “Even though we can always go further, I think we’ve already done half the work,” estimates Colomban de Vargas. “For the eukaryotes, from small cells to the largest animals, we already have a collection of over a billion DNA sequences. This probably will seem like nothing in 10 years, but for now, it’s just huge!”
In addition, we have a collection of more than 100 million bacterial genes, of which more than half were previously unknown. We also have 80 sequenced metagenomes – DNA analysis of an entire sample – including bacteria, viruses, fish larvae, unicellulars, small crustaceans, etc., all combined. Although this titanic job is still going on, early results have already revealed some big surprises. “The most impressive discovery for me is that we are reaching saturation,” continues the biologist. “Recently we have sequenced almost nothing new – it seems we’ve already seen it all. This means that on the oceans’ surfaces, we’ve nearly reached the limit of inventorying global genes, from bacteria to animals. And this has never been done for any other ecosystem on the planet – it’s a huge first.”
These initial results will generate by the end of 2014 several publications that will surely cause an uproar in the scientific community. Even before the publication of these results, the first genetic data will be released this summer, and made available to researchers worldwide. “Our American colleagues are anxiously awaiting the release of this data,” says Colomban de Vargas. “The information coming out of Oceanomics won’t belong to us anymore, and we will certainly see new publications with new discoveries.” After analyzing the data, the Oceanomics researchers will maximize the results by integrating genetics, imaging, physico-chemical water parameters, location, etc. “We really want to have the broadest possible picture of this ecosystem,” concludes the biologist.
Finally, the incredible amounts of new data, especially previously unknown genes, should lead the Oceanomics researchers to isolating new molecules. The fields of application, even if only speculation at the moment, seem immense: medicine, new sources of energy, monitoring biodiversity, etc. Just a year and a half after the beginning of the project, the first results are more than promising, and the future may hold even more surprises. “We are opening a field, a completely new horizon,” exclaims Colomban de Vargas. “Until now it was such an unknown world that inevitably there will be discoveries.” To know precisely which ones, we’ll have to wait a few years. The Oceanomics project is funded until 2020, but then in the decades to come, the entire scientific community will continue to learn from the immense treasure collected on a small 36-meter sailboat, navigating the oceans of the globe.